Approximately 12.6 per cent of children and youth age four to 17 years old have mental disorders at any given time in British Columbia.

THURSDAY SPOTLIGHT: Squashing the stigma of mental health

Youth are happy with available services, yet still feel afraid to seek them out

The issues of mental health don’t just occur inside the mind.

Many people also have to deal with the social stigma surrounding having a mental health concern. And when it comes to youth, this problem can be magnified.

“Being teenagers, they don’t want to be different,” said Dr. Jennifer Mullet, director of the Centre for Healthy Communities Research and adjunct professor at VIU.

However, Mullett and her colleague Dr. Sarah Fletcher have partnered with School District 69, the Family Resource Association (FRA), VIU and Island Health for a district-based study that will probe into these problems and look for solutions.

The project, Becoming and Belonging: Creating Community for Youth Suffering Mental Health Issues, stemmed out of an earlier initiative looking at mental health services in the area. What particularly interested Mullett in that earlier research was that the participating high school students  said they were happy with the services they received, but felt bullied and afraid of asking for help because they didn’t want to be “identified as a ‘freak’.” “There was a theme of not-belonging,” said Mullett. “This isn’t a service problem; it’s a community problem.”

So, Mullett and her team changed focus with this new participatory action research project to find out how to create a more inclusive community and reduce the stigma of mental health.

For this project, they plan to hold community forums, host parent focus groups and conduct interviews with local mental health service providers — such as counsellors — in the district starting in late May. They’ll also ask youth, both those suffering from mental health issues and those who are not, to volunteer their input.

“We want to take a positive approach,” said Mullett.

Mullett also said that the research serves a dual purpose: through asking the participants how they think a community could become more accepting and aware of what mental health is, the project aims to make the participants more accepting and aware of the issues.

“You’re changing things as you’re doing,” she explained.

Becoming and Belonging isn’t the only project making an active effort to reduce the stigma of mental health in the district.

Yesterday and today, a provincial program called ReachOut Pyschosis stopped in at both of the area’s high schools. Funded by B.C. Schizophrenia Society and HereToHelp, the program uses music and other entertainment to raise awareness about psychosis and mental illness.

In particular, ReachOut gives aims to inform youth on how to identify the issues in themselves and others.

“A big part of our message is look out for each other,” said tour coordinator Susan Nase, who added that the performers talk about mental health as a medical condition “same as a broken arm or leg.”

Deborah Joyce, executive director of the FRA, also thinks treating mental health as a medical condition can help reduce the stigma and blame associated with the issues.

“We don’t blame a person for getting diabetes,” she said.

However, she also mentions that not all mental health issues are the result of clinical disorders like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Sometimes, the issues are symptoms of anxiety, addiction or misuse of drugs and alcohol and depression that negatively affect an individual’s quality of life.

Joyce said these symptoms can occur with major life changes, including going to a new school, witnessing violence, being personally abused or being neglected. She also said that everyone reacts differently to situations; what can cause a bump in the road for one person can be majorly debilitating for another.

No matter the cause, though, mental health issues in youth are not as uncommon as you’d think.

According to the Ministry of Children and Family Development, approximately 12.6 per cent of children and youth age four to 17 years old have mental disorders at any given time. In other words, 84,000 children and youth in B.C.

Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities for those youth in the district to find help for whatever issues they are facing — even if they don’t know exactly what’s wrong.

The first, and often most accessible, is school counsellors.

“With many students in our region living in rural areas and unable to get themselves to outside agencies after school, they usually come to see their school counsellor,” said Shannon Confortin, a counsellor at Ballenas Secondary School, in an email to The NEWS. Confortin also said students can access information, apps and other sources through ballenascounselling.weebly.com instead of physically coming into the office.

There are also counselling services available in both Parksville and Qualicum through the FRA, which can be contacted at 250-752-6766, and the local Child and Youth Mental Health office in Parksville’s Family Place, which can be contacted at 250-954-4737.

Those in-need of short-term mental health or substance use counselling can find help at Oceanside Health Centre, where there is walk-in counselling for all ages Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. There are also a number of private counselling practices in the area.

If students would like less formal peer support through rough times, the FRA and SOS both have a number of youth activities. These programs are usually overseen by qualified youth workers who can provide additional mentorship if desired.

At all of these places, youth can learn coping skills to manage their mental health symptoms, said Joyce. In many cases, the youth workers involved also have the ability to refer a student to another service, including to a registered psychologist or psychiatrist for a clinical diagnosis if needed, or a different counsellor.

“Sometimes you don’t click with a counsellor,” said Joyce. “It happens all the time.”

Of course, youth say they often feel judged for turning to these services.

For anyone seeking the courage to go, however, Joyce said to remember that the services provide safe and supportive spaces where, at least for a moment, the stigmas surrounding mental health issues don’t matter.

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